§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. If or Davies.]
§ 11.15 p.m.
§ Miss J. M. Quennell (Petersfield)
I should like to draw the attention of the House to the non-payment of a maintenance order by a husband in New Zealand to his wife in this country, and, in doing so, draw attention, also, to the very unsatisfactory state of the arrangements existing between the United Kingdom and New Zealand for the enforcement of maintenance orders.
1072 There are probably many cases, because since I have been interesting myself in this constituency case my hon. Friend the Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Patrick Jenkin) and my hon. Friend the Member for Chigwell (Mr. Biggs-Davison) have had similar constituency cases and both wish to be associated with this Adjournment debate.
I cannot but feel that there is something rather suitable for this very tail-end of St. Valentine's Day that a spinster and, in the person of the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, a bachelor, should be discussing the non-payment of maintenance orders between husbands and wives.
The case to which I draw attention is very unsatisfactory. It has drifted on for 2½ years, during which time the unfortunate wife has never succeeded in obtaining the moneys due to her under an order made in a court in this country. I can best deal with it in strict chronological order as the events which affected the respective Government Departments and courts came up, without raising the various issues between the parties concerned.
On 4th October, 1963, a complaint was made by a wife on the grounds of desertion and wilful neglect to maintain. It is probably the wish of the House that I do not refer to the wife by name. On 6th November, 1963, an order for £3 10s. a week was made on both grounds. The husband, though absent, was represented by a solicitor who admitted the desertion and wilful neglect. On 27th November, 1963, the purser of the S. S. "Northern Star" served an order on the husband in Fremantle and in February, 1964, the husband made an allotment from his pay to the wife. In April, 1964, the husband left his employers, the Shaw Saville line, and in September, 1964, he left for Australia, the maintenance order having been paid up to 16th September, 1964. That was the last of it that his wife ever saw.
On 18th November, 1964, the wife appeared before Petersfield Magistrates' Court and applied for the order to be registered in Australia, the husband having fallen into arrears of payment. On 19th November, 1964, all the necessary papers were sent to the Home Office. On 2nd December, 1964, the Home Office acknowledged receipt of the papers, the 1073 acknowledgment being marked MOR/102/131/1, saying that the file had been forwarded to the Commonwealth Relations Office for transmission to Australia.
Six days later the clerk to the court informed the Home Office that he had information that the husband had flown on to New Zealand from Australia, which intelligence the Home Office duly acknowledged. On 15th January, 1965, the husband's solicitor in New Zealand wrote to the wife inquiring whether she had taken steps to enforce in New Zealand. Here, the respective solicitors for both parties began to communicate, but with no progress made and no money received the wife approached me.
On 10th March, 1965, I approached the Commonwealth Relations Office. This was acknowledged on 11th March, and on l8th March, 1965, the C.R.O. replied more fully saying that it had recovered the papers from Australia on 22nd January and forwarded the file to the Home Office, which, unfortunately, did not send them on to New Zealand until 16th March, 1965. There appears to have been a delay in the transmission of those papers, while they were in the hands of the Home Office, of just over seven weeks. I should be most obliged to the Under-Secretary if he could explain why this was so, because it occurred in face of requests for information from the clerk and my own inquiries earlier in the month via the C.R.O.
At this point in time, the Home Office advised the clerk that the Maintenance Orders (Facilities for Enforcement) Act, 1920, did not apply because it was no longer operative in New Zealand, other legislation having superseded it. This is rather important. On 5th April, 1965, the order was registered in the magistrates' court in Christchurch, and on 18th May, 1965, the Home Office notified the Petersfield magistrates' clerk of the registration.
On 1st June, I ascertained that the Home Office had suggested that the two courts might now communicate directly, a most sensible suggestion, but on 1st July, 1965, the wife's solicitor was advised that the husband had filed a complaint for variations in the order.
Here I must mention an important piece of legislation on the New Zealand 1074 Statute Book which markedly affects the enforcement of maintenance orders made in this country. I refer to the Destitute Persons (Amendment) Act, 1963. Under this Act, a court in New Zealand has power to cancel, vary or suspend the operation of a maintenance order for the purposes of New Zealand law or for the purposes of New Zealand law to remit wholly or in part any arrears due under a maintenance order.
I cannot quote the Act in full, but it effectively undermines the reciprocal arrangements which formerly had been thought to exist between this country and other Commonwealth countries. It would not be putting it too strongly to say that, if this Act becomes widely known, New Zealand will rapidly become a haven for absconding husbands elsewhere in the Commonwealth.
All this time, the unfortunate wife had still not received a penny of the maintenance money due to her. The case is made a little more poignant by the fact that she is a tubercular woman and she also has a duodenal ulcer. She cannot carry on in normal full-time employment as an ordinary person can, and, were it not for the kindness of a friend, she would be in dire straits. And, as I have said, hers is not the only case of this kind.
So the sorry story proceeds. On 10th September, 1965, the Home Office informed me that there had been a hearing before the Christchurch magistrates on 2nd August, which had been adjourned till 16th August. The Home Office did not know the outcome of the second hearing. This raises another point as regards communications between our two countries. They are appallingly slow. A month after the hearing, the Home Office was still ignorant of the outcome. This is another matter which must be looked into.
I prodded the Home Office on 23rd September, 1965. I received an answer on 18th October. Perhaps I was optimistic in expecting an earlier reply. Now, the husband was demanding a divorce from his wife, but she was told by her solicitors, she says, thatright or wrong, I would quite likely be landed with the costs of divorce, with the onus on me to recover them from my husband afterwards".1075 In this the Home Office concurred, saying in a letter to me on 19th October thatAn order for costs in her favour presents the same difficulties that the maintenance order has already revealed".The sorry plight of a wife in this country is that she can neither get her money from her husband nor get herself detached from the brute.
Meanwhile, no maintenance has been received by the wife, and neither had any communication whatever been received by the Petersfield court arising from the proceedings in the Christchurch court on 16th August previously. Nevertheless, the Christchurch court had, in fact, remitted the case on that date for the taking of further evidence from a court in this country. The Christchurch magistrates having remitted the case, the papers were returned to the Secretary of Justice at Wellington on or after 16th August.
On 13th December, I again approached the Home Office, pointing out that no communication of any kind had been received by the Petersfield court or by the wife and that, unless someone knew what further evidence was required by the Christchurch court, it could not be provided in this country.
On 10th February I received a letter from the Home Office. I would be most grateful to the Under-Secretary if he could explain some phrases in it. In it he refers to the Department of Justice in New Zealand's not sending on the documents after they had been received from the Christchurch Magistrates' Court. He states:The Department's reason for not doing so was that it had been, assumed from comments in Home Office correspondence dealing with other cases that in the present instance the Petersfield court would be unable to cooperate.I do not understand how the Home Office could have suggested to any other country's Government that the British courts would not or could not cooperate. It seems a very unfortunate phrase.
But today, this evening, nearly two and a half years after the wife first brought her complaint, she has received no maintenance from her husband since he left 1076 the Shaw Saville line, nor has she been able to obtain relief from the unsatisfactory matrimonial incubus to which she seems to be eternally attached. Nor do I think that the failures in the arrangements for communication between the two courts can be described as satisfactory in any way, shape or form. I should be most grateful if the hon. Gentleman would at some future time direct his Department's attention to this deplorable state of affairs with a view to reviewing the legislation, and perhaps now answer the few questions that I have put to him.
§ 11.27 p.m.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. George Thomas)
I am most obliged to the hon. Lady the Member for Petersfield (Miss Quennell) both for her courtesy in notifying me of the matters which she wished to raise and for the restraint with which she has dealt with what is undoubtedly a distressing case. I do not quarrel at all with her dates and her chronological recital of events. She obviously keeps a good file. I congratulate her on being able to quote the dates on which she wrote to me. It being St. Valentine's Day, I much appreciate that she has kept the interest. But this is a very serious case, and I hope to do justice in the time left to me to the serious issues that have been raised.
To explain the sequence of events, it is necessary to say something about the legislative background, which is somewhat complex. The Maintenance Order (Facilities for Enforcement) Act, 1920, gives courts here power to send maintenance orders abroad for enforcement and power to enforce orders sent here from overseas. The Act provides in either case for the order to be transmitted by the Secretary of State. Different procedures apply according to whether the defendant left the country before or after the order was made. If the order was made while both parties were in the same country it is sent to the overseas court, where it is registered and then enforced in accordance with the ordinary local machinery.
If, however, the parties were in different countries when the order was made, the procedure is somewhat more complex. In that situation the Act gives the court where the wife is power to make a provisional order only, which is of no effect unless and until it is confirmed by a 1077 court where the husband is. The confirming procedure involves the hearing of the defendant's evidence, and, in the light of that evidence, the confirming court has power to confirm the order as originally made, to confirm it with modification, to refuse to confirm it or to remit the case to the original court for further evidence to be taken from the complainant.
The 1920 Act was passed after consultations with overseas Governments who, in turn, proceeded to pass similar legislation giving their own courts the necessary powers to transmit orders for enforcement overseas and to enforce orders sent to them from abroad. The bulk of the overseas Commonwealth legislation is very closely modelled on the 1920 Act, but there has, as the hon. Lady said, been amending legislation in New Zealand which has a direct bearing on the unfortunate case to which she has drawn our attention.
It may be helpful if, before I turn to the effect of that legislation on the case, I briefly recount the events. The maintenance order was made in the wife's favour on 6th November, 1963, at Petersfield Magistrates' Court. The husband was then in England and the order was made under the ordinary domestic law. He later left for Australia and on 19th November, 1964, the Petersfield court forwarded a copy of the order, together with other documents, for registration and enforcement in Australia. On 8th December, 1964, however, after the documents had left the Home Office, the Petersfield court again wrote to the Home Office with the information that the husband had now gone to New Zealand.
Unfortunately, the statutory arrangements do not allow orders for enforcement in one country to be sent on from that country to another and we had to communicate with Australia in order to have the documents sent back here to be sent from us again to New Zealand. They were eventually sent to New Zealand on 16th March. The hon. Lady asked me about the delay of seven weeks. In the meantime, I understand, the Petersfield court had sought further advice from the Home Office on some technical details which involved much consideration with other Departments than our own. That accounts for the delay.
1078 In May, 1965, we were informed by the New Zealand authorities that the order had been registered at Christchurch Magistrates' Court on 5th April, 1965. There appeared to be some confusion as to the exact date of registration of the order. After further inquiries, this date was confirmed. It was also established that enforcement proceedings were being taken in August.
The next that we in the Home Office heard about enforcement of the order was on 13th January, when the hon. Lady, with considerable diligence, told me that the complainant's solicitor had been informed that the Christchurch court had remitted the case for the taking of further evidence in connection with the variation and enforcement proceedings in New Zealand but that nothing had been heard of this step by the court in England.
The Home Office, it is true, was not then aware that the New Zealand court had attempted to remit the case for the taking of further evidence and we started to make inquiries of the New Zealand authorities. On 20th January last, we received a despatch from New Zealand stating that the Christchurch court's request for the taking of further evidence had not been sent on to the United Kingdom because the Home Office in the past had expressed the view that no provision existed for English courts to take further evidence in connection with proceedings in a New Zealand court to vary a registered order.
That accounts for the part of the letter I sent the hon. Lady, and which puzzled her. The Petersfield court had no power to compel witnesses to come forward and to give evidence. We felt, therefore, that we could not ask the court to undertake this task. However, there was a misunderstanding. Further consideration was given to the matter. It has since been reviewed, and the conclusion has been reached that there is no objection to following the practice long adopted in the case of provisional orders, and inviting the court to take further evidence as requested by the overseas court, even although the court in this country has no power to compel witnesses to give evidence.
§ Mr. Thomas
I presume we would—the Home Office. I see I presume aright.
The New Zealand authorities have been asked to send here the request for further evidence in this case, and their reply is now awaited. I ought to emphasise that this order was registered for enforcement on 5th April, 1965. From that date until 30th August the ordinary enforcement machinery in New Zealand applied. After that, it was complicated by the application for variation. The position is, of course, that the enforcing court retains the ultimate discretion. If, in its view, it would be unjust to enforce to the full, or at all, this must be accepted.
The two main factors which have made these proceedings so unfortunately protracted—and I am deeply sorry for this woman: I know that sympathy does not meet her needs, but I am sorry, none the less—were the initial misdirection of the documents to Australia, rather than to New Zealand, and the decision by the New Zealand authorities, taken in the light of earlier Home Office advice, not to remit the Christchurch court's request for the taking of further evidence.
I should like to express to the hon. Member and her constituent my regret that, for a variety of reasons, the procedure has not operated as quickly as it should have done. At the outset, of course, the movement of the husband from Australia to New Zealand inevitably led to delay, and in the latter half of last year the Home Office had no reason to think that the two courts in New Zealand and in England were not satisfactorily in touch with each other. Nevertheless, I accept that, despite the complications of the law, and the long lines of communication between us and New Zealand, some part of this delay could have been avoided. I can well 1080 understand that the hon. Member and her constituent are impatient with this sort of proceedings. I only hope that there are not other women in the same position, waiting and waiting for an order to be enforced.
The fact is that two systems of law are involved, as well as two administrative machines. There are inevitably longer postal delays than there would be if the matter were entirely local. The need to ascertain the appropriate court and to transfer the proceedings if the defendant has moved imposes further delay. We are very conscious of the delay and we in the Home Office are re-examining the routine procedures to see whether, by one means or another, they cannot be accelerated.
I would, perhaps, not be out of order in saying that we have had under review the deficiencies in the Maintenance Order (Facilities for Enforcement) Act, 1920, and that the matter, I am pleased to tell the hon. Lady, has been noted for discussion when convenient at a conference of Commonwealth Law Ministers. I cannot make any commitment about when it may be possible to introduce new provisions, but until the law is changed those of us who are part of the administrative machine must do the best we can to improve our procedures.
The hon. Lady has rendered a public service by drawing attention to the suffering that can be caused through nobody's fault in particular, but through an involved process of law. I assure her that we will do our outmost to speed up a routine procedure that must be followed, since we ourselves are servants of the law.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at nineteen minutes to Twelve o'clock.